WILLIMANTIC, Conn. — For a relatively small campus with 5,000 students, Eastern Connecticut State University devotes significant manpower to community service. In the past year, more than 1,000 Eastern students volunteered approximately 15,000 hours in and around Willimantic. These efforts were on display on April 13 at the Windham Town Hall for Eastern’s annual Service Expo and Awards, hosted by the University’s Center for Community Engagement (CCE).
The expo showcased Eastern’s many student-led volunteer projects — efforts that alleviate issues of poverty, aid in community development and increase sustainability. These projects engage students with local youth, the elderly, those living with disabilities and other at-risk populations. Concluding the expo was an award ceremony that recognized standout projects and individuals.
“I knew about Town Pride Town Wide (a town-wide day of picking up litter) and other big events, but didn’t realize how involved they are in other programs, like with our school system and things like that,” said Ellen Lang ’81, expo judge and president of Eastern’s Alumni Association Board of Directors.
Speaking to the amount of volunteers and service hours in the 2015-16 academic year, Lang said, “I remember years ago when it was required for students to do community service, and students would only do their four- or eight-hour obligation. Once they removed that mandatory requirement, now the students seek out programs and they’re doing hundreds of hours; it’s amazing!” She added, “They’re willing to get their hands dirty, too. We talked to people who are building houses, digging gardens and sorting through clothing.”
Lang was among a group of judges (alumni, community members, Eastern faculty) who reviewed students’ poster presentations, asked questions about their experiences and rated their projects.
“The purpose of the expo is to get students thinking about what they did in the year; it’s a disguised reflection,” said Luis Rodriguez, assistant director of the CCE. “Students discover what they’ve learned when pushed to reflect.” He also pointed out that the expo develops presentation and public speaking skills, and that students can use their professionally designed posters to promote their programs and recruit more volunteers.
The projects are large in number and diverse in focus. Some students volunteer at the Beckish Senior Center in Columbia. Among other activities, they lead a computer technology class and assist seniors in using their electronics. “My favorite part is seeing the seniors come back each week, excited to see us and remembering the things we talked about,” said Michael MacDonald ’17, a student leader majoring in sport and leisure management. “It’s definitely rewarding to see that we’re impacting their lives.”
While each project has a different goal in mind, they all leave students with a similar sentiment. “Volunteering makes me feel like I’m making a difference in people’s lives,” said Ruth Eragene ’19, a finance major who volunteers with the Connecticut Mobile Pantry, a traveling food pantry with a stop in Willimantic. “I love to see the people talking about the meals they’re going to make and how they’re going to be able to put food on the table for their kids.”
Among the CCE’s most active volunteer locations is Windham Public Schools. For business administration major Koren Thomas ’18, whose project is with the Windham High School Afterschool Program, “We want to show the kids that when they graduate, they can be successful and have the good life that they want.”
Many of the afterschool participants have low grades and come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. “A lot of them think they’ll never go to college,” added Thomas, “but many end up doing really well; some are coming to Eastern next year. We know that they can do it, but it feels so good when they see it themselves.”
The CCE has begun a new trend of hosting the expo in downtown Willimantic, a tribute to the community in which the students serve and engage — last year the expo was at the Cafémantic banquet venue at 750 Main Street. Rodriguez says of the community integration, “Some students know about Willimantic because they may come downtown for a restaurant, but through the CCE, they meet and work with professionals in the community.”
An award ceremony concluded the event, but “our students don’t do this for accolades,” emphasized Kim Silcox, director of the CCE. “They do it because they have big hearts and really care about the people they work with.”
Rodriguez closed the event by saying, “If you’re in the community, keep welcoming our students; if you’re a faculty member, keep incorporating service learning in your class; if you’re a student, keep volunteering and offering your service.”